Raising a Service Puppy What does it take

I suspect most of us have no idea about raising a service puppy. So what does it take to do the job, right? What about the commitment to the project? What about the emotional attachment to the Service Dog or Service Puppy?

Many of us don’t even take the time to train our puppies at home. Read about Christine Gillow and Ruby as they answer some of the questions about what it’s like raising a Service Puppy, emotionally, technically, the whys and hows of getting the job done as both trainer and puppy work to learn how to be in service to humanity.

By Christine Gillow, Raising Ruby

In July 2009, after years of volunteering for service dog organizations, I decided to raise my first service puppy – a Labrador Retriever/Golden Retriever mix named Ruby. Ruby came to me at ten weeks old, and I will raise and train her until she’s 18 months old (just a few weeks from now) when she’ll leave me to enter Advanced Training. If she successfully completes Advanced Training, she will be granted full public access as a partner to an individual with a mobility-related disability.

During the 15 months I’ve spent training Ruby in public. I’ve been approached by hundreds of people (this will happen when you have an adorable puppy by your side at all times!) I’ve had the great fortune to be able to raise awareness for service dogs and answer any questions about puppy raising. The answers below are solely my opinion; each Puppy Raiser’s and dog’s experience is unique. Also, my answers on training questions are based on the curriculum of our organization, Canine Partners of the Rockies, and may well differ from the programs and requirements of other service dog organizations.

I’ll start with the big question, the one I’m asked most frequently, every day.

Q. How do you do it? I mean…how can you give her up?

A. Raising a service puppy is a fantastic experience. But, it is also not for everyone. There are significant time and financial commitments, but above all, you are making an enormous emotional investment. You are going to nurture, fall in love with, and eventually have to let go of a dog that is yours in so many ways, and yet not your own.

Ruby is a doll and an imp; I completely adore her, and love fills me to the brim each time I look at her. But there is a small part of my heart that doesn’t belong to her. I’m saving that for someone I don’t yet know – the person with whom she will someday be paired – and it justly tempers the love I feel for her. When she begins her life with the person she was truly meant for, that piece will fall into place; it will always be something the three of us share.

I know it will be painful when it is time to give her up, but there will be so much joy and hope mixed in with my sadness. I want to give her all the tools she needs, and then I want her to soar. To witness the love and trust of a team, the beauty and fluidity of a person and service dog who share life’s challenges are to understand how honored I feel to be part of the journey toward my dog’s partnership.

Q. Would you do it again, raise another service puppy?

A. Absolutely!

Q. How come I can’t pet a service puppy?

A. I completely empathize with how difficult it can be for people not to pet service puppies in training, trust me!

I remember seeing a tiny service puppy many years ago – a baby Ruby clone, complete with tiny cape – in a pizza place. It was all I could do to stop myself from scooping her up, covering her with kisses, and pretty much just plopping her on top of my slice along with the pepperoni and eating her right up. People have good intentions – petting a service puppy is just a way of showing affection. Why would that interfere with her training?

The reason we don’t allow anyone to pet a service puppy in training is that it’s so important to teach the puppy not to solicit attention. When you refrain from petting Ruby, you are contributing to a treasured part of her education. You are teaching her that there is no benefit to approaching other people when she is with her partner unless her partner gives her a specific command to do so. The focus a service dog has on her partner, and their bond, is an absolute lifeline between them.

Q. It’s not fair that a puppy has to work all the time. She never gets to have any fun.

A. I’ve heard this fairly frequently, mostly when we’re out shopping. Maybe it’s from people who really dislike shopping and are just projecting it onto the dog!

Just like any puppy, Ruby’s life is all about having fun, zooming around the house and yard, playing with squeaky toys, enjoying ear scratches and belly rubs. And lots of treats and cuddling and snooze time.

When it comes to our “work,” I can say without any hesitation that Ruby loves to train. I do too, and it’s always fun for both of us. Walks are also a very important part of training; we teach our pups not to pull on the leash (loose leash walking) as they grow accustomed to the world around them. I also like to train informally throughout the day, in ways that are out of the context of our sessions. While I’m cooking dinner, I might put her in a sit or down while I walk over to the stove for a bit, walk back, then release her. Or just out of the blue while we’re watching TV, I’ll ask her to “touch” (bop my hand with her nose – a building block for later skills she’ll learn, such as pressing buttons or turning switches on and off); she thinks it’s a fun game.

As far as outings, Ruby is naturally curious, and she loves going into stores and other public places. She’s never forced to do anything she’s not capable of, she’s rewarded frequently, and we always end on a special fun and upbeat note.

Q. What kinds of things do you teach her how to do?

A. During the approximate year and a half that Ruby is with me, we’ll work on socialization and cues such as sit/stay and down/stay; stand; wait; here (come); lap; car; touch; under; fix (untangle herself from the leash); heel; etc.

Q. Can you train her to get me a beer while I’m watching the game?

A. I get this one ALL THE TIME! Yes, service dogs can be trained to perform specialized tasks such as opening the refrigerator door, retrieving an item, closing the door, and bringing the item to their partner. But I’ve trained Ruby to reject light beer, so the fridge will have to be stocked with an excellent double IPA.

Q. What happens to her after she leaves you?

A. At 18 months of age, Ruby will enter Advanced Training for approximately 4-6 months, where she’ll learn the more specific skills she’ll need when she is partnered with a person who has a mobility-related disability. If all goes well, at around two years of age, she’ll be teamed up with a partner, and I will proudly attend their graduation with an ample supply of tissues!

Q. What happens if she doesn’t make it?

A. That depends on why she doesn’t make it. If it’s a health-related issue, she will be released from the program, offered to me to keep, and I will adopt her. If she has a behavior or temperament issue that prevents her from attaining public access, her trainers will determine if there is another area in the realm of canine assistance for which she might be suited. She’ll be trained for that sort of job. If the behavior or temperament issue completely disqualifies her from service, she will be released and offered to me. If, for any reason, I am unable to adopt her, there is a waiting list to adopt released dogs so she would ultimately wind up as someone’s well-loved pet.

And Remember:

“She is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are her life, her love, her leader. She will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of her heart. You owe it to her to be worthy of such devotion.” ~~Unknown

Before I close, I need to remind everyone that sometimes during the training of a dog or the life of a dog, it’s excellent to have a dog crate depending on the dog’s history and current behavioral patterns. Sometimes a heavy-duty dog crate is required. Please feel free to visit us. Dog Crates are our specialty.

“Raising a Service Puppy What does it take” probably will never be “our” story, but we can be trainers for our dogs at home as we care for them, train them and love them. As you know, they will return it all and more unconditionally.

About The Author

Bill Beavers, brings you pet products that provide improved Quality of Life for You, Your Family and Your Pets.

You can connect with Bill on Twitter or Facebook and follow his latest projects. For Fun, Facts and Love for our pets follow this blog for informational and entertaining posts and cool tips.

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